Vince Cable and Nick Clegg have pursued a strategy that has resembled a poorly-scripted comedy as much as a bitter tragedy in the past month.
This week we have reached the final act of a farcical and disastrous process whereby Liberal Democrat MPs have squirmed to escape an explicit pledge and desperately tried to equate their promise to the level of a policy aspiration.
By now all readers know the argument that a pledge is more than policy and the arguments why more help for part-timers does not balance out the damage of full marketization of fees. So, instead of repeating them, I am going to explain why I’ve decided to resign from the party.
I’ve been a party member since I was 17 and I thought—to borrow a phrase from Charles Kennedy—that I’d be carried out of this world with a gold rosette (or at least a by-election helper’s sticker). Yet, I cannot defend the breaking of the pledge over student fees. There are a raft of excellent reasons why those of us feeling dismayed and betrayed should stay as members and fight. In fact, I’ve used them myself when arguing with others in the past. As a member of a democratic party, you can argue from within that the Browne reforms are wrong and that the next Lib Dem manifesto should repeal them. That, of course, is the status quo. But it doesn’t matter, when Lib Dem ministers ignore the Federal Policy Committee and backbench rebels like Julian Huppert and Tim Farron. MPs who ignore pledges to electors will ignore pledges to members.
There are – understandably- concerns about the wisdom of conference delegates triggering a special conference to ‘recall’ the leadership’s policy and subject it to a full and open debate. Yet, in the absence of stomach for this, and in the absence of meaningful ways to pressure a change of course from within the party, there seem to be few viable alternatives to resignation.
Resignation is a blunt, empty, extreme response by members to MPs breaking their pledge. However, for a powerless grassroots member, resignation is the only viable weapon to pressure the powerful. It means disappointing and angering most of my closest friends, who will feel I’m deserting them in a struggle for the party’s soul. But I don’t see how ordinary members like myself can – in these extraordinary times where coalition contingency has rendered internal democracy meaningless – register our protest in any other way.
Because I care about the Liberal Democrats and I don’t want to see the party become a British version of Germany’s FDP, I am going to resign. Paradoxically, this ‘nuclear option’ appears, to me, to have the best chance of preserving a party I’d want to be a member of. I think leaving is my only way of proving just how much loyal, devoted liberals have been devastated by the fees debacle. I don’t make threats of resignation idly and I hope that by following through on this decision it will cause some MPs to reconsider the party’s current direction; indeed, I would encourage other grassroots members to do the same and use the last, humble means of protest at our disposal.
I can’t attend conferences, because of job commitments, so election as a conference rep holds little chance to make a difference. I can’t believe any pledges to members from MPs who have broken their pledges to voters.
Therefore, until the next presidential election in two years, resignation is the only weapon I have to express my opinion of the party leadership.
I realise that not every Lib Dem member has the luxury of my lack of personal ambition. I can resign because I don’t need continuous, uncontentious membership to qualify for future preferment. I want to see my talented, budding approved candidate friends become successful PPCs and MPs in the future, so I wouldn’t like them to follow in my footsteps. I don’t want to see my friend Mark, who holds my old seat on Oxford City Council, cease to represent that ward. But amongst us footsoldiers, the penalties of resignation are personal and fraternal pain, balanced against the comfort of knowing we’re not financially contributing to the costs of printing apologia for a betrayal we abhor and the hope of shocking others into action.
So, because I’m a liberal and I care about the party and any other action seems hopeless, I’m resigning.
Richard Huzzey is a former member of the Lib Dem Voice editorial collective, a former Oxford City Councillor, a former local party officer and, as of today, a former member of the party.